Lowering the flag on old-fashioned Ulster loyalism

Working-class loyalists are the only constituency in Northern Ireland to have shunned the therapeutic ideas and language of the peace process - and they're being punished for it.

Kevin Rooney

Topics Books

My first experience of Ulster loyalism was a vivid one. I was seven years old, the third-youngest child in a Catholic family of 10 children living in East Belfast, a predominantly Protestant area. In the early hours of one morning in August 1971, I was woken up by shouting and screaming. I rushed out of the house in my underpants, along with my brothers and sisters. Outside was a crowd of several hundred loyalists waving Union flags and shouting anti-Catholic obscenities at us. As we were driven off at speed, they cheered in celebration. That was the last time I would ever see the inside of my home.

When I awoke the next morning, in the ‘refugee centre’, I learned that several hundred Catholic families had also been driven from their homes that same night by loyalist mobs in a mass pogrom. Within a week, the number was thousands and history now records that it became tens of thousands. Though we lost our house and most of our belongings, we were fortunate that we escaped alive and unharmed. Not all Catholic families were that lucky.

I was reminded of that fateful night by recent loyalist protests against the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall. At first glance, the loyalist crowds outside City Hall may have looked similar to the baying mob that drove my family out of our home. But on reflection, they’re clearly very different. Unlike in a previous era, Northern Irish loyalists no longer appear confident and superior. Compared with the days of the Ulster Workers’ Strike of 1974, or the huge loyalist demonstrations against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s, the loyalist protests over the Union flag have been very small affairs.

Struggling to articulate what they stand for, the flag protesters are frustrated and fragmented. The flag protests look more like a lashing out at what they have lost than an expression of loyalists’ former supremacy.

The things loyalists once held dear – Britishness, the monarchy, anti-Catholicism – no longer mean much to the British establishment, which has found new ways to maintain its rule in Ireland. With the IRA’s armed struggle long since abandoned, Sinn Fein has been drawn into the peace process via the Good Friday Agreement signed in April 1998; these republicans have signed up to a new, reformed six-county state. The reward for this compromise has been increasing material equality for Catholics and ‘parity of esteem’ in terms of identity politics and symbols – hence the restrictions on the flying of the Union flag.

Many working-class loyalists, however, have never really accepted the peace process and view it as Sinn Fein and republicans waging war by other means. Watching Sinn Fein becoming the largest party on Belfast City Council was bad enough for loyalists; seeing Sinn Fein successfully have the Union flag removed from City Hall was too much to take.

While some commentators think the distinction between ‘loyalism’ and ‘Unionism’ revolves around attitudes to violence, class was and is a much more significant aspect. Loyalist paramilitaries are deeply rooted in the poorest sections of the Protestant working class. Writing in the February edition of the London Review of Books, Colin Kidd was right to point out that loyalism has been an underappreciated expression of Protestant working-class consciousness. Today, the resentment of young working-class loyalists towards middle–class Unionists in their leafy suburbs is palpable, and is part of what makes up the siege mentality on display in the flags protest. Loyalists increasingly view Unionist politicians in the same way they view Catholics, the cross-community Alliance Party and British politicians: as untrustworthy enemies.

The flag protests reveal a group of people who feel abandoned and betrayed by British rulers in London. They feel their British identity is being diluted. Each concession to Irish nationalists and republicans, real or perceived, is interpreted as another nail in the coffin of loyalists’ Britishness. As if to confirm their worse suspicions, it is clear that the young loyalists fighting for the Union flag and the crown are viewed with nothing but derision and contempt by British politicians. Where once they served a useful purpose in Britain’s fight against the IRA, militant loyalists are now surplus to requirements.

One of the most interesting dynamics within loyalism is not just the sense of alienation from British politicians in Westminster and Unionist politicians in Stormont, but the growing intergenerational tensions within working-class loyalism itself. A new, more uncompromising breed of young men, like Jamie Bryson, has emerged to lead the flag protests. It seems the older leaders of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) can no longer take for granted their leadership role, as younger, more militant protesters accuse the older generation of going soft.

These developments raise some serious questions. What is happening within loyalism? Where does it go from here? Does loyalism have any future? Though written before the flag dispute, Peter Shirlow’s The End Of Ulster Loyalism? is a valiant attempt to answer these questions, and a fascinating analysis of loyalism in peacetime.

Shirlow explains in the introduction that he wants to challenge reductionist theories that stereotype all loyalists as unreconstructed sectarian hardliners. He begins by distinguishing between what he describes as positive loyalism and regressive loyalism. He paints an ugly picture of loyalism in its heyday, outlining the widespread scale and indiscriminate nature of loyalist murders of Catholics and the extent of collusion that took place between loyalist paramilitaries and the British security services.

But by far the most interesting part of the book is Shirlow’s argument that there is another, more constructive loyalism emerging that is not receiving due attention. ‘The consumption of loyalists is driven by a tabloid media to such an extent that the signs of progressive changes have been submerged’, he writes.

Shirlow does not dispute the existence of loyalist hardliners; but he distinguishes between the ‘idiocy’ of rejectionist loyalism and an avant garde of ‘progressive’ or ‘transitional’ loyalism willing to work with ideas of conflict resolution and to engage Catholics as equals. Contrary to received wisdom, he argues, it has always been sections of working-class loyalism that have experimented in creative ways, offering an olive branch to nationalists long before middle-class Unionists did. Throughout the book, leading loyalist figures like Jackie McDonald, Billy Hutchinson and the late David Irvine are held up as intelligent, interesting and deliberately misunderstood. In Shirlow’s view, these men have been ‘fundamentally far more ahead of Unionism, in terms of the exploration for accommodation’.

Shirlow is a big fan of the various conflict-transformation initiatives that leading loyalist figures are engaging in, and dismisses those within loyalism who object as ‘spoilers and wreckers’. He presents a sophisticated and positive analysis of the various programmes of conflict amelioration and peace-building strategies – but sadly, he fails to subject them to the kind of critical questioning that is surely called for. He is unwavering in his praise for ‘conflict resolution’ and the people engaged in it.  

But I would challenge his assumption that the loyalist working class has engineered and devised conflict-resolution initiatives. It is much more the case that the politics of conflict resolution are being imposed from without on an ideologically exhausted loyalism. While working-class loyalists are indeed involved in the process of what gets called ‘conflict resolution’, that fact should not disguise that this is really a top-down initiative rather than bottom-up one.

What is striking about conflict-resolution initiatives is the number of so-called experts called upon to facilitate them, including therapists, psychologists, academics and the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council. This is far from being a local, organic initiative.

For all their faults, the one thing that loyalist leaders were always good at in the past was a bit of straight talking. But the leaders Shirlow wants us to admire increasingly talk a new language, picked up from conflict-resolution experts, which deploys all the ambiguous jargon of the peace process. In my view, this deliberately vague language partly explains why some younger loyalists are now looking to more blunt leaders like Jamie Bryson, who expresses political convictions in a much more forthright way.

In the past year, I have attended two separate political debates in Belfast where older loyalist figures spoke. With their talk of ‘parity of esteem’, ‘decoding the allure of violence’, ‘hybrid identities’ and references to theorists like Jürgen Habermas, they were unrecognisable from the straight-talking individuals of old. It may have taken a few years longer than Sinn Fein, but the loyalist old guard now also talks in the language of the peace process – a language, it seems, that is alienating loyalist leaders from their old grassroots support.

While many, including Shirlow, see what is happening in loyalism today as a bold move to embrace the peace process, I see it differently. Ulster loyalism is a dramatically weakened force that has been dragged, kicking and screaming, towards embracing the peace process. Far from ‘selling out’, as some loyalists accuse their leaders of doing, in many ways the loyalist leaderships’ accommodation to the latest phase of British rule in Ireland is consistent with the history of their movement. When Britain needed an aggressive, supremacist majority to guarantee British rule, loyalists played that role with gusto. Now Britain needs loyalists to behave differently in order to secure the status quo; it needs them to adopt the therapeutic language of accommodation and respect for diversity. The loyalists who ignore the new script and refuse to adapt to their old ally’s new demands will find that their devotion to the British state cuts little ice. No wonder commentators report a sense of betrayal and disorientation among the flags protesters.

Shirlow writes: ‘The future of loyalism is dependent upon support from state agencies and other funders in order to maintain key interventionist work.’ Wow – how the mighty have fallen!

Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London. 

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Topics Books


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